Sep 5th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Mark 7:24-37
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There is a theory that the dog became domesticated because our ancient ancestors had more than they could eat. During the ice age, hunter-gatherers may have shared their bounty with wolves, which, in turn, became their pets. The precise timing of all that is uncertain. Genetic evidence suggests that dogs split from their wolf ancestors between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago. As the wolves were made more and more tame, they assisted the hunters in their work.
The word “dog” can hold many meanings. You can say “you’re such a dog” to a guy when he behaves in a cheeky manner or says something naughty. In another case, you might say “you dog” to someone who is secretive and deceptive. In some circles, calling someone a dog means that they are physically unattractive.
So, when Jesus speaks to the Syrophoenician woman and says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” we have to pay some attention.
Let’s begin by noting that Jesus is exhausted. He goes looking for a little quiet, a little solitude, a place where he can rest and renew. But, word gets out that he is there and before long a Syrophoenician woman bursts into the house. There is no mention of her knocking at the door or otherwise seeking entrance. Not a word about her standing in the street and pleading her case. She just walks in.
What makes that even more strange is that by entering the house, this woman has abrogated barriers, and customs, and practices that had been in place for generations. She is Syrophoenician – a Gentile – and Jesus is a Jew. The audacity of this woman forcefully seeking an audience with Jesus is astounding!
The woman states her case. Her daughter is not well – perhaps possessed by a demon – and she wants Jesus to do something to make her daughter well. She may be a Gentile, but she is first a mother of a sick child. She will do whatever it takes to see her daughter made whole.
But Jesus seems to get caught with his compassion down. Jesus is downright rude. Jesus is unquestionably coarse. Jesus responds with a bald insult. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Did Jesus just call that woman and her daughter “dogs?” Did Jesus just cast her as shameless and unclean? It seems inconceivable, but did Jesus just treat another human being, created in the image of God, as less than human?
Did Jesus just dismiss her because she is a woman? Did Jesus reject her because she was of the wrong race? Did Jesus rebuff her because she was of the wrong religion?
There is so much going on in this brief story that an easy answer is not to be found.
Still, the woman will not be denied. She and her daughter may be “dogs,” but “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She and her daughter may not fit the mold of a typical Jesus follower, but surely they deserve something from his hand.
For her tenacity, her resolve, her persistence, Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” The woman returns home and finds her daughter on her bed, well and whole.
Lots of commentators and scholars suggest that Jesus is just toying with the woman. They say this is all an act, with Jesus articulating the animosity of the time and not endorsing it. This view holds that Jesus intuitively knew that the woman would push Jesus to heal her daughter.
But that seems too easy. That lets Jesus off the hook. He said what he said. Could it be that Jesus was working with the blinders of his day fully raised? Was he so caught up in being sent to the Jews that he had no time for the Gentiles?
Was Jesus changed by his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman? Was he persuaded by her argument? Did Jesus change his mind, much as God changed God’s mind when confronted by Abraham and Moses? Was it because the woman was unafraid to wrestle with Jesus and demand a blessing, much as Jacob wrestled with God?
And I’m not sure that choosing one interpretation over the other is in our best interest. Life is lived in tension – under pressure – and often without certainty or assurance. Life is full of change and transformation.
One thing is certain: the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman reminds us of how easy it is to get caught with our compassion down. The story reminds us that Jesus’ disciples sometimes forget and show themselves to be indifferent to people because they are of the wrong gender or gender-identity, the wrong race, or the wrong religion. The story can remind us that we are not here to care for people who are just like us but to care for all those in need, not matter how different they may be from us.
Who do we – the church today – overlook or disregard because of some ancient view that has imprinted itself on our ecclesiastical DNA? Who do we ignore because, according to our ingrained view, they “won’t fit in?” To whom do we deny God’s love because we deem them unworthy of it?
This story is discomforting to we modern-day disciples. But the question that presents itself is simply this: will we continue on this path, or will the persistence of the needs of those around us cause us to change our point of view and our way of ministry? Will we ignore the needs of our community and world, or will be allow ourselves to be changed?
In the second healing story for the morning, Jesus heals another Gentile with a speech impediment. He speaks these words to the man, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” I wonder if Jesus can say this to the man because he himself had his own experience of “opening” at the hands of the Syrophoenician woman.
But the words are for us, too. “Be opened.”
Are our eyes closed to some around us? Be opened.
Are our ears closed to some around us? Be opened.
Are our hearts closed to some around us? Be opened.
Are our minds closed to some around us? Be opened.
Are our hands closed to some around us? Be opened.
The good news is that the same Jesus who had, perhaps, undergone a transformation at the hands of a Gentile, Syrophoenician, woman can lead his own to be transformed as well. It can begin at this table. This Table is not just for the powerful, but also for the underprivileged. This Table is not just for one race, but for all races. This Table is not just for those of a certain gender, but for all who are – regardless of labels. This Table is not just for those with money in the bank and market, but for those who struggle and toil for their daily bread.
At this Table, Jesus opens our eyes and ears, our hearts and minds, and reminds us of why we are his people. We are here to love as Jesus loved, live as Jesus lived, and serve as Jesus served.
This is the pure, raw Jesus. He is willing to take us on, to challenge us, to provoke us, and he is even willing to use us.
All he commands us is, “be opened.” For now and evermore. Amen.